If Mexico is “so close to the United States; so far from god”, then Venezuela is “so endowed with oil; so robbed of wealth”. In 1935, Venezuela had the highest per capita GDP in all of Latin America. Yet today, there are reports of a collapsing oil industry caused partly by the fact that oil industry workers are too weak from hunger to actually be able to work.
What happened? The different imperialist powers, especially US imperialism, played their role robbing and plundering, just as they do all around the world. And in the case of US imperialism, it not only plundered Venezuela and Latin America as a whole, it directly supported both the 2002 attempted coup against Chavez; it also helped fund the reactionary capitalist opposition to him. But the role of imperialism was integrated into the capitalist “development” of Venezuela itself.
After its conquest by European colonizers, the original basis of the Venezuelan economy was agriculture. This changed after oil was discovered, but the land issue remained a vital one for Venezuela. According to the World Bank at the time that Chávez was first elected (1998) 60% of the farm land was owned by less than 1% of the population, and 5% of land owners controlled over 75% of all rural land, while 75% of land owners owned only 5% of the land.
This situation was developed by and through the capitalist dictatorship in concert with imperialism. For example, Agroflora, owned by the British Vestey Group (owned by Lord Vestey) was a major land owner. (Agroflora also owned land in Brazil and Argentina.) Other major landowners included the “batistianos” or Cuban exiles who had supported former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista before Castro overthrew him.
Landowners as parasites
As the World Bank put it, “big landowners are an integral part of the oligarchy in Venezuela. Although some sections of landowners do produce for the market… in general, the class of big landowners represents the most parasitical aspects of the oligarchy.”
The state also helped bring this concentration of ownership about. For example, there was the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez from 1908 to 1935. He and dictator, Marco Pérez Jiménez simply used their office to appropriate land for themselves and their cronies.
This concentration of land ownership went hand in hand with a failure to develop food production. As VenezuelaAnalysis explains, “a market for land ownership developed, but mostly among middle to large land holdings, as these landowners began purchasing and selling their land, often for speculative purposes.” Because land purchase often was simply used for speculation, huge tracts of land were often left lying fallow, not used productively.
The development of the oil industry actually made this land issue worse. Venezuelanalysis talks about the “Dutch disease”. The huge revenue from oil meant that little was invested in agriculture, making that sector uncompetitive with other countries. This meant that Venezuela became increasingly dependent on food imports. This was exacerbated by the high currency value of the Venezuelan bolivar, which was also overvalued by the early years of the Chávez regime. So, even less went into developing agriculture, meaning lack of food production for the largely urban population.
Venezuelan Capitalist Class
Because they could not develop the country, the Venezuelan capitalist class was unable to develop any real base in society. As a result the Venezuelan government bounced from one military government to capitalist democracy and back again. In other words, when the Venezuelan capitalist class could not rule in its own name, its rule was replaced by the military caste. This caste partially rose above the classes.
Venezuelan capitalist development was also integrally linked with the capitalist world market, especially because it is so highly depended on oil exports. The collapse in oil prices in the 1980s and ’90s meant a foreign debt crisis in Venezuela and this also led to massive inflation, which peaked at 100% in 1996. In that same year, 2/3 of the population was considered impoverished.
Hugo Chávez elected
This was the background to the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998 and the writing of a new constitution in 1999. This constitution was a model of democracy – but of bourgeois democracy.
The Venezuelan capitalist class and their allies in the military along with US imperialism fought back, first through the 2002 attempted coup and then through their general “strike”. Both of these were backed by US imperialism and both were defeated by a general mobilization of the Venezuelan working class.
Working class inspired
These two victories inspired the working class. As Simón Rodríguez of the Party for Socialism and Freedom put it, “the 2002 rebellion (against the coup) did open up a period in which revolutionary change seemed possible.” For one thing, it led to the growth of the new union federation, the National Workers Union (UNT) vs. the old, collaborationist, AFL-CIO/CIA linked Confederation of Venezuelan Workers.
There also was a wave of worker takeovers of work places. In some cases, workers took over their company and then called for government credit to keep it running. In others, this meant worker co-management. This reflected the positive desire of workers to take control over their work lives, but it also had some dangers. Orlando Chirino, left union leader in Venezuela, warned against the idea that can develop “that workers and bosses can coexist.” Rodríguez commented to this writer about how the cooperatives can aim “at making workers into owners”, not in the collective socialist sense, but owners within capitalism.
Chirino also warned that illusions could develop in co-management vs. an out-and-out socialist revolution. In this writer’s experience, that did happen in that workers started to think that if they just established a network of workers’ cooperatives within a capitalist system, and without workers establishing their own government, that that would be sufficient.
In other words, following the defeats of the counter revolution, and with the booming economy (due to high oil prices) and the fact that Chávez was redistributing this wealth through his different “misiones” such as the low cost grocery stores and free health clinics – all this lead to a huge upsurge in popularity for Chávez. With that, every opportunist and bureaucrat magically transformed him or herself into a “chavista”. (That, I believe, was what I saw at that first public meeting I attended in Venezuela in 2005.)
Eva Golinger and corruption
Eva Golinger, the US writer who helped expose US CIA involvement in the 2002 attempted coup and also US involvement in other efforts to destabilize the Chavez presidency, helps give an insider’s view of what was happening. Golinger is widely seen as an opportunistic self-promoter and gold digger by socialists in Venezuela. She probably is, but it is exactly those qualities that helped her get inside the Chávez administration. Among other things, she accompanied Chávez on trips to countries as widely varied as Cuba, Uruguay, Russia, Belarus, Iran and Syria. She recounts her experiences (always with a view to whitewashing herself) in her book Confidante of “Tyrants”. One thing that comes clear in her book is the role played by the fact that Chávez did not come to power through a movement of and through an organization (party) of the working class. The result was that he had to appoint aides and administrators who had no experience in or dedication to the working class. The idea of being part of and sacrificing for the working class was foreign to them.
For example, Golinger recounts the little corruptions like Chávez’s entourage on his trips abroad saving their per diem money, which was given them in dollars, which they sold on the black market when they returned to Venezuela.
Golinger writes: “I watched too many Chávez aides, advisors and assistants withdraw into isolated, protected lifestyles, completely detached from the reality of daily life in the country… How could any government official understand the difficulties people faced if they never experienced these themselves and instead spent years being carted around in luxury cars, having assistants do their shopping and errands and never interacting with ordinary people in a setting that wasn’t staged?” The fact that Golinger, herself, apparently participated in that lifestyle and never criticized it until the regime became unpopular doesn’t detract from the validity of her point. Workers leaders have to live like the workers they represent. Period.
In fact, the corruption has gone quite far. Much of it stems from the fixed exchange rate. Those who are connected get access to dollars at the official rate. They then can sell the dollars in the black market, sometimes at 100 times what they paid. The Guardian newspaper, for example, reports on tens of millions of dollars being laundered in Panama by the “boligourgeoisie”. There are also cases of outright bribery, such as that of the former national treasurer, Alejandro Andrade, who admitted in a US court to having received over $1 billion in bribes. Some might dismiss this admission because it was made in the US court, but then how did he get his Florida properties, platinum and gold Rolex watches and luxury cars?
Chávez set up a party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela – PSUV – maybe to try to build an organized, working class base. If that was the intent, it was stillborn. Chirino commented on the “conscious attempt to prevent workers’ leaders and revolutionaries from getting into the (National Assembly…. They have rewarded right wing bureaucrats”. Even the Chávez supporter Golinger confirmed this: “The entire leadership of the party was hand selected by Chávez and his closest advisors…. It was top-down with an elite leadership…” she wrote.
None of this detracts from the tremendous accomplishments of the Chávez presidency. How it basically wiped out illiteracy, fed and provided health care for the poor. Nor should we lose sight of the upsurge in the workers movement and the confidence of the working class during those years. That is why US imperialism was so hostile. But the good intentions and dynamic personality of Hugo Chávez were no substitute for an organized, conscious and independent movement of the working class.
Take, for example, the critical issue of land reform:
On the one hand, Chávez tried to deal with the issue through legal measures. Some of them were thrown out by the courts, proving that the issue cannot be resolved based on acceptance of capitalist legality.
In the years that followed, different peasant groups did try to seize land. But these attempts met with vicious counter-attacks. Here, for example, is one report from 2006: “The fiercest aspect of landlord reaction is direct and murderous physical attack. Hired assassins, called sicarios, have attacked leaders and cadres, attacking individual victims as well as groups of campesinos with their families. Gregory Wilpert describes an example: In August 2002, in a small town in northern Venezuela, a man wearing a ski mask drove up to Pedro Doria, a respected surgeon and leader of the local land committee, called his name and, as Doria turned, shot him five times.” Venezuelanalaysis and others report on dozens and dozens of terrorist attacks like this one. A few arrests have been made, but also members of the National Guard have been accused of participating in these murderous attacks. Again, to quote Simón Rodríguez, “the government negotiated with the landowners, extorted them, but left them pretty much in control.”
The only means of really combating this would have been to arm the peasantry and for the working class to send reinforcements from the cities. But the problem was that Chávez’s base was the military. How could he have armed peasants and workers, then? It’s inevitable that the military commanders would have seen that for what it would have been: A threat to them and their power.
Economic planning needed
Another aspect of the problem was that no matter how you cut it, the land reform was carried out piecemeal to the extent that it was carried out at all. But land ownership and food production were and are intimately linked with the rest of the economy, as were the landowners with both the rest of the Venezuelan capitalist class and with imperialism. So, to really eliminate the power of the latifundistas and to really resolve the land problem would have required two things: First was an overall economic plan. And therein lies the exact problem of Chávez’s “socialism of the 21st century”. It really wasn’t socialism; it was a mixed economy. Chirino referred to this in that same interview, when he cautioned that “it is incorrect to think that bosses and workers can co-exist under socialism.”
Collapse of oil industry
But the key issue is the collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry – the industry that has long been at the heart of the Venezuelan economy. In part, that is due to the collapse of oil prices, but that’s not all. Shortly after he came to power, Chávez reversed the developing privatization of PDVSA. So far, so good. But this was done in the absence of workers’ control and management. Just as was true elsewhere, this set the stage for both massive corruption and inefficiency. At the end of 2017, Maduro appointed Major General Manuel Quevedo to run PDVSA. This came after Maduro was finally forced to recognize the widespread corruption in the company, arresting six executives of the PDVSA subsidiary, Citgo, and nearly 50 executives of PDVSA earlier in the year. Since Quevedo had no experience in the oil industry, it was widely believed that his appointment was meant more to shore up Maduro’s base in the military than anything else.
One aspect of the crisis in the oil industry is the massive increase in industrial accidents. PSL, for
example, reports on a fire at the Amuay refinery that killed at least 39 workers and injured over 80. “This was preceded by a series of serious accidents and constant complaints by oil workers about the lack of investment and maintenance in the oil industry,” they write. They list some 36 other similar incidents.
The military’s control over food distribution is instructive. According to this report they have used that control to extort businesses, thereby exacerbating the food shortages. Their control over other aspects of the economy can hardly be any different.
The Venezuelan military is no different from the military anywhere else. Especially in conditions of generalized hardship, they will use this power for their own benefit, especially since they have also become in effect capitalists, owning and controlling various companies.
Some will object that there is no way that the Venezuelan working class could have stood up to world imperialism. They are right. That’s exactly why building a world working class movement was and is necessary. Instead, Chávez made the blunder (at best) of linking up with all sorts of oppressive capitalist regimes, including those in Iran, Syria, Libya, Russia, and others.
Golinger describes Chávez’s relationship with the arch reactionary Putin: “ Chávez and Putin had become good friends over the previous years, bonding together on their anti-imperialist multilateral view of the world. Both were adversaries of Washington and both wanted a more prominent role on the international stage.” It was similar with Aleksander Lukashenko, dictatorial president of Belarus. “Lukashenko found a partner in Chávez, an ally and an ideological brother.” (The fact that Golinger
apparently sees no problem in this approach makes her analysis all the more credible.) He famously called the reactionary, misogynistic Ahmedinijad of Iran “brother” and “comrade”. How would Iranian women and Iranian workers in general see this? And in 2005, when oil workers in neighboring Ecuador went on strike, Chávez offered to lend that country up to 88,000 barrels of oil. This can be called nothing less than a strike-breaking offer.
Venezuela a “player” on world capitalist stage?
If “foreign policy is just the extension of domestic policy”, then it is also a reflection of domestic policy. And that policy was to make Venezuela a player on the world capitalist stage. The fact that the degenerate Venezuelan capitalist class had proven themselves incapable of developing Venezuela drove Chavez to take a semi-independent role in relation to them. It drove him to rest to a great extent on the Venezuelan working class. But regardless of whatever his intentions or wishes may have been, he did not come to power through the organized action of the working class and, once in power, it was impossible for him to shift to putting that class in power – whether he wanted to or not. His caste, the military caste, was who was in power and they and those around them were not about to give up that power. Nor were they about to sacrifice the perks that come with power.
Then, a twin crisis hit their main industry, the source of their wealth, the oil industry: One was the collapse in oil prices. The other was the collapse of the Venezuelan oil company, PDVSA, due to the incompetence and corruption of the military caste that was managing that company. A part of this crisis was also the fact that apparently the Chávez regime was raiding the kitty, over spending from PDVSA for social programs rather than reinvesting enough of that money back into the company.
As the economic crisis worsened, all the worst aspects of bonapartism came to the fore – increased corruption and increased repression. Also, as has happened in nearly every capitalist country in the world, the regime sought to make the workers pay through all sorts of austerity measures. (See this interview with Simón Rodríguez.)
Some claim that the crisis in Venezuela is caused by the US sanctions. But until the most recent sanctions imposed by Trump, the main sanctions were against individual Venezuelans, not against Venezuela as a whole, and especially not against the Venezuelan oil industry. That is not to support any such sanctions, but it’s hard to see how they could have had such a disastrous effect on the Venezuelan economy.
Venezuela in a theoretical context: theory of permanent revolution & role of working class
Theory is compressed history, and the history of Venezuela is not some unique exception. It is explained by the theory of permanent revolution, as first put forward by Leon Trotsky.
That theory explains that in the ex-colonial world, the capitalist class cannot accomplish what it did in the imperialist world. It is too linked with the old landlord class and with imperialism. Therefore, it remains for the working class to take power and accomplish those tasks. But that can only be done in the context of overthrowing capitalism itself.
There is an additional point: There is no substitute for the working class. No single leader – no matter how great, how dynamic, how committed – can substitute him or herself for the working class. Nor can a separate caste, such as the military. We have seen time and again similar attempts. We saw it in Mexico with the old Lazaro Cárdenas and his ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). We saw it in Egypt with Nasser. And now we are seeing it with Chavez and the man who followed him, Maduro.
There are no saviors, no substitutes for the working class. If the working class wants to find a savior, it must look in the mirror.
Could it have been different?
How could the working class have played its historic role in Venezuela?
In the working class upsurge that followed the defeat of the coup and the capitalist “strike”, workers built the “cogestion” or workers cooperative movement. Chirino suggests that this was a source of dual power, and maybe it could have been. Could these cooperatives have linked up together, and linked with the communities, the peasants and the unemployed?
Could they have started to have played not only an economic but also a political role? For example, even in those earlier days, there was a considerable crime problem in Venezuela, especially in Caracas. That included the highest murder rate in the world. Could an organized network of the cooperatives and their allies have played a role in putting a stop to this? In that way, not only economic but also political dual power might have started to develop.
From here in the United States, it’s impossible to answer such questions with any certainty. But we do think that it’s questions such as these that we should be asking.
Which Way Venezuela?
The Wall St. Journal is no opponent of military rule. But even they admit that the Venezuelan military is behind Maduro at this point. Guaidó has tried to bring the military tops over by offering them amnesty, but so far he has failed. Will he succeed in the future? Oaklandsocialist has been in contact with comrades inside Venezuela. Even they don’t know, but if Guaidó succeeds, then Maduro is gone. That, of course, would be out of the pan and into the fire for the Venezuelan masses. Or he might bring some of them over, leading to a bloody civil war, the result of which would be a disaster to the Venezuelan masses no matter who “wins”.
Despite all the rhetoric, a US invasion would be very complicated for US imperialism, but you never know with the lunatic Trump. (One factor making an invasion less likely is that Putin, who controls Trump to a degree, is aligned with Maduro.) Or possibly a Latin American force, led by governments like Bolsonaro’s in Brazil, would invade. Or the Venezuelan military could split. Any of those cases would likely result in a horrible civil war, if the Venezuelan military did not collapse entirely. In any case, an invasion would be carried out for the benefit of the imperialist interests of the invading country or countries, not the working class of either Venezuela or anybody else. (Here are some factors as we see it.)
US working class
A Guaidó government, backed by US imperialism will be no solution whatsoever. The US working class has every reason to oppose any US capitalist intervention, including the US sanctions against Venezuela. Such attacks go hand-in-hand with the attacks on Latino refugees who are fleeing their desperate situation in Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere.
Nor should US workers ignore the fact that the US labor leaders have collaborated with US capitalism in such measures as trying to overthrow Chavez to reimpose the will of US imperialism on the working class of Venezuela. There is a reason that the AFL-CIO has been called the AFL-CIA! That collaboration with US imperialism is just the same as the labor leaders’ collaboration with the bosses at the work place. The struggle to make our unions really fight for us on the job is linked with the struggle to make our unions support, not undermine, the workers in countries like Venezuela.
A growing workers revolt seems to be developing around the world. This includes in Iran, France, Belgium, Sudan, Mexico and Haiti. The US working class will sooner or later join this global revolt. As it does, it will tend to move down the road towards building its own political party, a mass working class party. That party will have to link up to the world working class.
We can start towards that by supporting our brothers and sisters, our comrades, in countries like Venezuela. No to Guaidó and US imperialism! No to the military rule in Venezuela! For direct links between the workers in struggle in Venezuela and the United States and around the world! For international working class solidarity and socialism!
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Update: If you liked this article, we also recommend the review of the book “Why did Chavismo fail?” co-authored by Simon Rodriguez.